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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  

 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The American Alpine Club; Promises, Politics, and the Myth of Advocacy




 

Despite a sunny start, we always suspected it would end in tears.

 

What we couldn't know was how much insight it would give us to the inner politics and contradictions of the advocates

 

After years of flying under our own power, Cindy and I recently began exploring a new option: founding a Smoke Hole Chapter of the American Alpine Club.

 

This came on the heels of a regional AAC Summit, held in Seneca Rocks this past March 10-11, to which I had been invited by D.C. Section chairman Dave Giacomin.

With my wife Cindy along to make notes and keep me on a level footing, I crossed North Mountain from our Franklin home, winding down Germany Valley and past the soaring blade of Seneca to find the AAC crew gathered in Yokum’s Family Cabin #4; Tom Cecil and Diane Kearns, the Seneca co-chairs, Dave G., and a handful of chapter chairs from Pittsburgh, Richmond, and D.C. 

 

After a warm greeting, we settled in and listened to a lot of eager new leaders and relatively new climbers who were working hard to offset the ignorance and reversals of the new administration in the White House.

 

We shared some of our own activities and ideas, and at the end of the meeting, Dave handed us parting gifts and said, “Just let me know if you want to start a Smoke Hole chapter; I can do that for you, no problem.”

 

Two days later, we sent a text and asked Dave to go ahead with that idea; we wanted to form a Smoke Hole chapter of the AAC.

 

While there is a Seneca Rocks Chapter, we felt that Smoke Hole deserved a separate chapter for many reasons, chief among being that Cindy and I would be the first chapter chairs with a personal rather than professional connection to the area.

 

I grew up less than an hour away in the Shenandoah Valley, and first came to the region as a young caver in junior high, exploring passages from Sinnet-Thorn to Nut and Trout Caves, learning to rappel and navigate in a wonderland of fantastic formations, underground streams, hypothermia, mud and darkness. My mentor in all of these adventures was Kris Kline, one of the most prolific and unrecognized explorers and climbers of the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies in the late 70s.

 

As a new sport climber, I was among the first generation to enjoy the bolted lines of Franklin, where I joined the crowd putting up routes with my own contributions, Belly of the Whale, Aloha, and Hard Thang. Here, I learned the deeper art of the sport known as rock climbing from local legends like John Burcham, Ed Begoon, Darrell Hensley, Tony Barnes, Dan Miller and George Powell.

 

In 1993, Darrell Hensley invited Troy Johnson and myself to join the climbers already developing lines in Smoke Hole. We put up the first lines at the Long Branch Buttress and on the Ninja Walls, and in the 24 years since then, I’ve put up over 50 trad and sport lines in the canyon.

 

When I realized that, although once a city park, the cliffs of Franklin were in fact private property, I contacted the landowners, and was one of the only visitors to ever ask permission, even belatedly, to climb there.

 

Mike Fisher and I constructed the first coherent trail plan at Franklin, and I began looking for volunteers, soon finding them in the Nolan LaVoy and the students of the Miller School in Albemarle County, who built steps and repaired trails in 2006.

 

The following year, I coordinated with Jamie Struck of Lyndon State College in Vermont, bringing New England student volunteers to repair the trails of Franklin and Reed Creek, a tradition that is now in its tenth year.

 

In 2007, I also created the first Franklin Trail Daze, at which the newly-formed Mid-Atlantic Climbers’ Coalition recruited members and gave away swag. Near the end of the event, I introduced two of the officers to the landowners, who had driven into the Gorge to “see what all the fuss was about”.

 

My wife Cindy learned to climb in Smoke Hole, coming to the sport in her late 40s, after two back surgeries, a stroke and ten years of battling Multiple Sclerosis. She loves to fish, swim, hike and climb there as much as I do, perhaps a bit more when it comes to fishing. Her daughter’s family lives just outside Petersburg, 20 miles from Smoke Hole; her son-in-law has been hunting, fishing, and exploring Smoke Hole for most of his life, and our granddaughters are learning to fish and climb and love the outdoors as they grow up in and around the canyon.

 

At the meeting in Seneca Rocks, Tom Cecil and Diane Kearns agreed that Seneca Rocks is a very unique crag, with a tremendous history and very distinct character, and that “the Chapter of the AAC was founded just for Seneca Rocks and Seneca climbers”.

 

Tom and Diane also made it clear that they are incredibly busy running two guide services, a gear shop, the Seneca Rocks Historical program, and acting as the Educational Director, as well as participating in all the programs talked about for the coming year.

 

Tom pointed out that many if not most of the people who climb in Seneca don't come to Franklin or Smoke Hole, and vice-versa; very different places with very different cultures and climbers.

 

Here are just a few of the differences:


Since the beginning of 2017, the Smoke Hole Canyon page has posted about environmental and political issues affecting West Virginia and outdoor recreation across the U.S.; the Appalachian Pipeline Project, the attempted sale of our Public Lands, the overturn of the Stream Protection Rule, the attempted reversal of Bears Ears Monument status and the subsequent withdrawal of Patagonia from the annual Outdoor Retail event. Across the hill, the Seneca Rocks page remained silent on all these issues, but came back strong with an endorsement of climbing... in Cuba.

 

We're working with the MNFS to support both system and climbing access trails, and will shortly be commencing with the restoration of the Cave Mountain Trail and Picnic area, giving local access to their heritage and offering climbers a better way to access the climbing potential of Cave Mountain. We'll also be working to support the entire 23-mile stretch of the North Fork Trail.


The Seneca Rocks Chapter 'supports' trail work, but without actual participation.

 

We're working to bring climbers and the community together; reviewing restaurants and campgrounds, stores and local services, and encouraging climbers to attend local fundraising dinners and events that have nothing to do with climbing.



We are working with the Lambert Hilltop Park Association in Circleville (that's south of SR in Germany Valley) to supply bedding, utensils, and appliances for the local community center and disaster shelter.

 

We're trying to secure climbing access in Franklin and other private crags, instead of calling "No Trespassing" signs 'sensitive access'.



 

We're teaching people the correct and least damaging way to replace bolts, and determining which type of bolts and anchors work best for the rock in our region.

 

We continue upgrading hardware on climbs, across the region, strictly out of pocket.

 

Meanwhile, across North Fork Mountain, they're raising funds to replace bolts and install high-quality anchors... again, in Cuba.


Here are some of the inconsistencies:


 

The AAC is very proud of its support of women, but they lied to and rejected Cindy, a former nurse, EMT and firefighter who started several businesses, worked for Habitat for Humanity building homes for poor West Virginians, learned how to climb in her 40s and has gone on to lead routes up to 5.8, as well as building trail and completing dozens of first ascents with me, across the United States?

 

The meeting stressed the AAC’s determination to support diversity and reach out to at-risk communities; Cindy is a descendant of Seneca Indians, a foster child who started her life in abuse and poverty in the slum, and my paternal family escaped the poverty of Appalachia working with the CCC crews who built the walls along the Skyline Drive and the Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.

 

The AAC highlights its outreach to the disabled, including one such story as a "Live Your Dream" grant in their 2016 Guide to membership. 


Cindy has survived and recovered from a stroke that all but paralyzed one side of her body, she has battled Multiple Sclerosis for the last fifteen years, and still struggles against the degenerative disc disease that required the complete rebuild of her lower spine. Last year, Cindy survived a cerebral aneurysm that horrified the best neurosurgeon in the United States, requiring a 4 hour operation that was "the most complex procedure (he) had ever completed or witnessed".


Perhaps her lack of visible disability isn't dramatic enough for a fundraiser or membership drive photo.

 

As for my resume, most of you know it; over 180 first ascents and miles of trail built or repaired in Virginia, West Virginia, Arizona and Colorado.

I helped build the Stairmaster at Seneca, did the first trail work and created Trail Daze to benefit trails in Franklin and Smoke Hole.

I was a SAR EMT with the Civil Air Patrol in this region during Hurricanes Hugo and Floyd and Isabel, and supported clean-up and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, after which I worked with the local Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the poorer folks of Pendleton County.

I've been a volunteer host in the Tonto National Forest and Superstition Mountains in Arizona, where I also fed 40 homeless people hot food three times a week out of my own pocket while working a minimum wage job.  

After that, I spent two years working as maintenance and campground host in Elevenmile Canyon in the Pike National forest of Colorado.

I am currently working with the Monongahela National Forest to restore and maintain system trails in and around Smoke Hole, and still actively developing new crags and lines for people to enjoy. 

 

I admit to a past with the advocates, but while I have questioned the paradox of an AAC that sponsors huge events and film festivals with massive carbon footprints, I was willing to work for change from the inside, to make peace for the good of the crags and local climbing community.

 

I hoped the AAC would consider all of this, instead of simply holding a grudge, or looking at a map and measuring distances.

Hope springs eternal, but the cold hard facts of institutional stupidity never go away, as I was to learn.

 

After two days of waiting, Dave G reluctantly informed us that he had promised something he could not deliver, and began rather petulantly asking what the differences between ourselves and Seneca would be, despite having heard us tell him those exact details at the meeting four days earlier.

 

(You might think about that the next time your AAC section or chapter chairs and/or other admins ask for feedback; no matter how enthusiastic they sound, just how much are they actually listening to, and how much will they care to remember?)

 

Determined to stop wasting time on messenger boys, we made contact with a number of Smoke Hole climbers and encouraged them to write to letters of support for the new chapter, and to send them to Adam Peters, the AAC’s go-to guy for forming new Chapters, according to Dave and the AAC’s Guide to Membership.

 

When Adam returned from vacation on March 21st, he sent an email and we scheduled a chat for the evening of the following day, Wednesday the 22nd.

 

After twenty minutes on the phone, Adam was enthusiastic and excited about the idea, as well, and said he was “emailing Dave to let him know we’re making you a new chapter, and getting the ball rolling on this end.”

 

Cindy and I immediately began creating a schedule that would not conflict with Seneca AAC events, and reaching out to local businesses that we hoped to support with events that would bring together climbers and the local community.

 

The following day, Thursday, March 23rd, Adam sent an email to AAC HQ, asking for creation of a new email address for the chapter.

 

The weekend came, and, after sending emails to Adam and Dave telling them that we would like to announce the new Chapter at our upcoming Reed’s Creek trail and Adopt-a-Highway event,  Cindy and I went about the business of planning events we did not yet know would never happen.

 

On Tuesday, March 28th, we mailed in short bio pieces and pictures to go with the New Chapter page.

 

That afternoon, a full six days after giving us the green light, Adam Peters called to tell us that, despite all the promises he and Dave Giacomin had poured out, the Smoke Hole Chapter of the American Alpine Club was not going to happen.

 

This is where the story gets confusing; first Adam said the decision had come down from on high, then later defended it as his own.


Adam said that we were not eligible for consideration due to a list of qualifications, conditions for a new chapter that were obviously not applied to Seneca Rocks.


Despite all this email evidence, Adam and his handlers now insist that it is my history, of pointing out the double standards and hypocrisies of the advocates, which took us out of the running. I find that a bit incredible given that it took six days for him to change his mind from "We're a big GO on the Smoke Hole Chapter!" to "We're not fulfilling a promise made by two administrators of the American Alpine Club."


Yes, I have criticized the priorities and lackluster activism of the advocates in the past, and given their present course and policies, I will no doubt do so again.


When the AAC highlights Duane Raleigh fawning over gym climbers while blaming those of us climbing outdoors for their deaths in a TNB article, I will call the advocates and the publisher on the fact that his magazine sells an awful lot of ad space to gyms.


When, in the next tremendous waste of paper and time that is Rock and Ice, Duane tells the 2,000 people who begin climbing in gyms every month that "every climber should put up a new route before they die", I will ask where exactly he thinks all those routes would go, and propose that he might like to start by showing them some of his favorite secret places. I will also point out just how many people who sell bolting equipment also use his ad space.


When Duane goes on to say that those newbies should also replace an anchor, without any mention of experience or education, I wonder just what kind of Swiss cheese cluster foxtrot Duane would like to find atop classic lines at his own favorite crag.


This is called criticism, not slander, although the AAC and the AF would love for you to forget that there is actually a difference.


Questioning the advocates is not heresy.


And there is plenty to question;


The chapter program was described as “experimental”, even though the Seneca meeting had given the impression of a system that is so freeform that Dave never batted an eye while admitting that he was “forming a Maryland Chapter, even though we all know D.C. doesn’t need another chapter, but I’ve gotta give Piotr (the relocating San Francisco co-chair) something to do.”

 

When asked specifically why Smoke Hole didn’t qualify, Adam listed a number of things that are equally true about Seneca Rocks, but refused to admit that was a double standard, then asked us to list differences we had already explained in both emails and phone conversations.

 

The message was clear; the decision is made, and you’re screwed.

 

Adam still held out the consolation prize of free memberships, but I had no doubt that those memberships came with an unstated but inflexible gag order regarding AAC posts and events; despite repeated offers, we declined the free collar and muzzle.

 

After someone forwarded an email I had sent out explaining the situation to the climbers who had supported our new chapter, I was unfriended on Facebook by Dave G, who then not only blocked me from his page but from the D.C. Section page.

 

Although none of them had ever done more than ask for clarification of the incident, several of my friends have now also been unfriended by Dave, and have also been blocked from accessing or commenting on the FB pages of the D.C. section and Seneca Rocks Chapter.

 

From the outside, this looks a lot like trying to stop a dialogue between members and climbers; sweeping the mess they created under the rug while trying desperately insisting that, like Smoke Hole, there is nothing to see here.

 

It begs the question; just how many times have the leaders of the AAC done this, and what kind of collateral damage have they kept from their members?

 

Is the American Alpine Club actually profiting from their own indiscretions by creating fundraisers to deal with issues exacerbated by administrative arrogance and double-dealing?


"But wait a minute, Mike... those folks represent us; they're our advocates, and they care deeply about us... Don't they?"


Not so much.


Neil Arsenault has been a member of the AAC for 40 years; when he asked to be included in the meeting to add some perspective, he was told, flatly, "Not this time, Neil."


Another friend and dues-paying member wrote to the AAC about this issue, and he received not a single reply; a highly respected legal professional who grew up in Colorado and got his membership decades ago, the kind of member who buys a lifetime membership and then gives one to his kids, ignored when  he asked hard questions.


While you might have been given a questionnaire about what you think the focus of the AAC should be, we learned in the Seneca Summit that


1) outside of the obligatory membership drives and fundraisers, the chapter and section chairs of the AAC have little or no clue how to accomplish the goals they set and


2) actual policy is set by feedback from climbing manufacturers, not members.


(That is a direct quote, BTW.)


That means if the manufacturers want the AAC to oppose trade sanctions with the world's leading polluter and human rights violator, China, based on the fact that most of the outdoor industry sells products manufactured in that country, the AAC falls right in line.


It means that when Barack Obama signed off on the biggest giveaway of Public Lands in U.S. history, the advocates let that issue idle on the back burner.


"Why?", you ask.


Look at your guide to membership, and think about just how many of the "valued partners" make the majority of their goods in or buy them from China.


Black Diamond just brought cam manufacturing home, but for most of the fight to save Oak Flat, their Camalots came from China. And valued AF partner Jeep uses quite a bit of copper; want to guess where it comes from?


So what? So, the principle shareholder in the companies that benefitted from the land swap is China. The most likely place for the copper to be refined and marketed is China.


That translates into just enough action on the issues that the advocates can claim to be involved, but never involved enough to really push these issues to the forefront of the climbing community's consciousness.


Right now, the AAC is focusing on the Bear's Ears Monument designation. What they don't want to talk about is how Obama could have used this to reverse the Oak Flat decision, or the fact that Obama trimmed off the NE corner of the new monument to allow a uranium mine to continue drawing water.


The advocates don't want bad news; my invitation to the summit was made on the non-negotiable condition that I not bring up a single issue that deeply affects the region.


Once I saw all the shiny new climbers they had transformed into chapter chairs, I understood; no one must be allowed to pollute the propaganda stream with questions and critical thinking.


It is for this same reason that administrators are not elected by the membership, nor are positions created at their behest.


No, instead, positions deemed necessary by the very elite upper echelon of the AAC are filled by the chosen of that elite; candidates selected from among a small cadre of business owners and guides who can best benefit the corporate image of the AAC, instead of choosing leaders who are most capable of serving the needs of the members, based on their input.

  

If you are a member or are thinking about becoming a member, and believe changes are needed in how the AAC creates and fills official positions, how it treats potential members and ignores local climbers with decades of experience, speak out and write to your advocates.

 

If you want to see an end to double standards and the beginning of a major perspective shift in the priorities of the Chapter Program, please write to Adam Peters apeters@americanalpineclub.org, or contact the CEO, Phil Powers https://www.facebook.com/philpowers and let them know what you think.

 

Represent yourself, climbers; the crags you save may be your own.

 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Blue Ridge Shadows


I am a boy of 4 or 5, standing in the cold morning air of the Blue Ridge, dressed in my Sunday best. Beside me, my sister Diana squints into the frosty sunlight as my mother, Joyce, a slim, nervous woman from New Hampshire, with dark hair and a wonderful smile, peers through the horn-rimmed glasses that were stylish at the time and holds her daughter gently but firmly in place.

My father is Gilbert, Jr., a slender man still in his twenties whose face is too serious by far for the laughter it owns. Braced against a great black car, a Packard, I think, his shoulders are square, the hair above his well-shaped ears a thick golden frost, still shorn in tight military buzz from recent service with just a touch of rise to a flat-top in front, a short wave front of individuality. He is holding my hand, limiting me to small arc of movement I have explored endlessly until the moment in which the picture is taken.

There is wood smoke in the air, the rank smell of livestock and the green of a nearby garden, still thriving below the frost thanks to dozens of carefully-placed milk jugs and a half-dozen feed sacks. Cats mill around the back door, unmolested by the short, fat mongrel dog, Poochie, dark as a sausage and just as round. Chickens scratch and cluck at the red and yellow soil through patches of blackberries and rank mountain grass, fearless and too feral for hawks, serpents, cats or hound, as if aware of their eventual date with an axe and frying pan.

Beyond the white-painted wood and screen door voices mix with laughter and the clatter of plates and pans as a shifting breeze carries the smell of cigarette smoke, coffee, scrapple, bacon and eggs, onions and potatoes frying in the lard of sausage freshly made from hogs which have grown to maturity in the hog wallow behind the cinderblock garage, beyond which the mountain drops down in a steep tangle of cedars, greenbrier, locust trees wrapped in honeysuckle, goat’s head thorns waiting for unwary feet in the poor soil that gives way to a boulder field.

Above, the Blue Ridge Mountains rise away in a shadowed mass of hardwoods, sprinkled with ancient cedars and groves of pine, bone white sycamores, catalpa and sumac adding their bright colors, fox grapes draping the trees shadowing forest floors covered by pine needles, skunk cabbage and the ever present poison ivy. Deer move through meadows bounded by autumn olive and mountain laurel, sometimes bear and bobcats and the rumor of a ‘painter’ or panther, something forest biologists deny with all their might despite persistent rumors.

Skunks and possum and raccoons inhabit the forest, garter snakes slipping through the leaves,  vicious copperheads and rattlers “big as your arm”, black snakes scaled like dragons chasing wood mice, moles and chipmunks, squirrels leaping madly through the high canopy, scolding the robins, sparrows and finches that hopped and flew through the branches, jays gossiping loudly as crows and blackbirds fight their age-old duels against the deep blue skies, buzzards riding thermals toward the clouds, transformed in their grace from scavengers to aerodynamic wonders. A red-tailed hawk screamed from somewhere, challenging the world, and locusts begin to sing in the rising warmth.

My grandfather’s land is perched high on a ridge in Kite Hollow, and across the steep narrow defile, through the towering sycamores, a grown-up might glimpse the trailer of my uncle, Philip. In the distance, the mountains roll down, hiding the valley surrounding the tiny, distant town of Stanley rising abruptly into the twisting mountain folds that are home to the Skyline Drive, once the hunting trails of the Seneca and other northern tribes.

Trash is taken to the boulder field on a regular basis, often burned, leaving the stench of charred plastic and paper, the reek of the hog lot and the faint undertone of rotting food hanging over this beautiful vista in a miasmic cloud.

The stench is the smell of Progress; at one time, ‘trash’ consisted mostly of cracked cups, broken plates and jars and broken wooden furniture that would burn. Food was not thrown away in a family that had known the hunger of the Depression; leftovers became new meals, and what few scraps were created went to the hogs, the legion of cats, and Poochie. Waste is not a plague among people who reuse jelly jars as glasses, whose food is grown or shot within sight of home, who catch their fish from rivers and streams within walking distance.

Society has moved away from simple containers to a world of petrochemicals and plastic, creating barren forests and toxic streams that require constant stocking, mountains of trash which will last forever. When one considers the vast quantities of household and industrial waste which are transported into these places and buried by contractors who profit from pollution, the small transgressions of an impoverished generation seem miniscule by comparison.

When even the burned debris piles up in ‘the dump’, someone with a machine is called in to push the berm of melted glass and unburnable debris further down the hill, although this has not been done in some time. Local legend holds that there is a bulldozer operator still on his machine somewhere in one of the numerous unstable talus fields that dot the steep mountains of the Blue Ridge, taken down by overconfidence and stupidity, buried alive.

As a child, I recall being briefly convinced that the talus field in the story was the one behind Granddaddy’s hog lot and that the ritual burning was to cover up the smell.

It was hard for me to understand the reasons behind the dump, hard to understand my father’s embarrassment for the place and life in which he had grown up, for the necessity that created the short arc between the hillside garden and smoke house filled with hams and bacon to the trash-strewn mountainside

Down the hill, out of the fall line of both the unstable boulder field and the spreading delta of trash, well out of sight of the family homeplace, live my great uncles, Shirley and Dick. Once, long ago in the era of great promises known as the New Deal, this generation of Grays had joined the masons who every day climbed down into the Potomac, trusting in great coffer dams to hold back the mighty waters of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay as they mixed mud and laid the millions of bricks that formed the foundations and soaring columns of the Memorial Bridge, an architectural triumph of function and beauty that became a landmark in Washington, D. C.

It is often the fate of those whose hands create great marvels to be forgotten, too often to live in obscure poverty. Although one of the greatest cities on earth lay less than three hours away, actually within sight of the highest peaks of the Skyline Drive, there was a vast disparity between what folks in the hollows of the mountain considered ‘well off’ and the Capitol’s bloated, self-serving definitions of that condition.

Different worlds.

At the time, I did not understand poverty, did not yet understand history, and had no concept of how it had shaped the cultures of the Appalachian Mountains for better and for worse, and created a mythical place called Appalachia, “a place about which more is known that is not true than any other place in the world”, and a population that is still the most unrecognized minority in America.

Although there had been many storms and oceans of passage in a life so short, for the most part, the world was still a bright parade of days and dreams; I knew only that these were my relatives and this was where he meant when my father said “Home”.

I could not understand why going there made him so happy and being there, so sad.

My grandmother is revealed as the door opens with a rusty squeal of hinges and the musical twang of the spring; she waves away a passing June bug and calls out to us.

“Y’all come eat!”

Hilda is a short, round woman, with red cheeks and a wide smile of bad teeth, thick strong arms and hands, bright eyes and a wicked laugh that can turn nasty or sink to a loving chuckle at a moment’s notice. Whether company comes at break of day or middle of the night, Hilda is always ready with a pot of coffee and a plate of food, and no one is turned away from her table hungry. Her grey-streaked hair is pulled back and she mops sweat from her neck with a damp cloth as she talks softly to the milling cats, promising them treats as Poochie waddles past, into the cooler kitchen, in search of scraps.

My grandfather is a great, stooping bear of a man with a face that I see more every day as I look into the mirror, although mine carries none of the incredible weariness that comes from being born and raised, then starting a family of your own, looking for work in the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity in the wake of the Depression. Perhaps it is because of those years that he is always ready to smile, and his eyes, netted in folds and creases, twinkle as his mouth fights against a grin.

Granddaddy is not a saint, by any means; he talks rough and he smokes Pall Malls and he has a past with parts he’d rather not talk about, like anyone who has lived through hard times. But he is one of the deepest loves of my childhood, a figure and a force that has shaped all our lives for generations.

Standing, looking back, I believe that whatever harm folks think he might have done in the world, he surely did a lot of good, as well, building monuments, working like a titan for every dime he earned.  

Now he snatches me up, freeing me from my father’s firm grip and his rough stubble of beard scratches at me as he hugs me close, smiling and laughing gently as I giggle and squirm, his lips against my face, the smell of his aftershave and tobacco a cachet that is love. His rough workman’s hands tousle my hair and he puts me down, says something to my father about ‘growing like a weed’, and turns to reach for my sister, who stretches eager arms and laughs as he swings her around into another hug and kiss, then hands her back to my mother, whom he calls ‘pretty as a spring day’. She blushes and smiles, a shy Madonna revealed, moves toward the house.

“Come on, Gilbert!” Hilda calls. “Don’t let it get cold!”

“Well,” Granddaddy’s voice is the rasp of a lifetime smoker. “I reckon we’d best git t’the kitchen, a-fore Hilda takes a switch to us.”

“Road kill?” my dad asks, despite having spent the previous day among the folks cutting up butchered hogs, grinding sausage and pressing out lard.

“Gil!” My mother’s voice is scandalized despite having heard this joke a hundred times.

“Reckon we can rustle some up in you’ve a hankerin’.”

“Well, as long as it has Hilda’s tomato gravy on it, I guess we can eat it.”

Hilda’s gravy, liberally sprinkled with black pepper and the occasional flake of wood ash, is legendary in the household, and deservedly so.

“Don’t get none o’ that gravy on your head, boy.” Granddaddy says and winks at me. “Your tongue’ll slap your brains out tryin’ to git it!”

I laugh because it is an old joke, one of the best, and because it is so good to see my father smile. My sister laughs because everyone else is laughing, a high, pure sound of joy.

My mother shakes her head, a grin breaking through the disapproval.

Together, we walk down an ancient path into morning, dappled in the shadows of the Blue Ridge.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

R-e-s-p-e-c-t

During the campaign, #45 said that he would respect the rights of the states to pass cannabis laws, would respect the laws they had passed regarding cannabis production, possession and consumption.
 
Had he not done so, #45 might not have enjoyed the huge 44% of the vote which swept him into the White House, since his opponent had also voiced a position of moderation.

That, of course, was before; this is after, and "respect " obviously has the same sort of alternative definition that so many of the other words in #45's world possess.

So sad, watching the denial and the step-by-step encroachment of rights, the loss of decades of progress on the environment and the aggressive disdain with which any expression of dismay or voice of moderation can expect to be met.

Will the juvenile, empty justification that "The Left did it, too!" be the epithaph of our entire nation, and the chauvanistic cry of "My country and screw the world" be the defining legacy of our culture?

We were better than that, once.

I never accepted the liberal perchant for blame beyond the elections, and I refuse to overlook it coming from a destructive regime which is, in my opinion, nothing short of an oligarchy in the making. I refuse to shirk my own portion of the blame, for I sat back and refused to participate in a game in which I did not believe.

I cannot say that the people who have voted since the Johnson administration have fared any better, though.

No one will tell me that #45 was their first choice, just that he was all that remained of the Grand Old Parody and was infinitely less distasteful than Mrs. Pantsuit.

So now the die is cast, and we have no way but forward, into war; abroad, and in our homes, our hearts, our minds.

Into war, for make no mistake, this fool loves war; whether empowering the jihad while securing the oil supplies of 'Merica by killing civilians in the name of God and patriotism, or just breaking promises, shattering communities and eradicating businesses and jobs while securing the profit margins of his campaign contributors and business partners.

(OH, right, this guy was going to be so good for business, I keep forgetting that watching reality unfold.)

This is a war on children with seizures and their families, a war on the seniors who built this proud nation that is crumbling around us, on decorated military veterans who lost comrades and gave up their youth to fight for something bigger than themselves that is being sold by the day at cut-rate prices.

This is a war on disabled citizens and the Constitution, a war on your right to choose, to refuse narcotics.

Black tar heroin and meth are once again filling the streets of the south and destroying the promise of communities, poisoning the youth and shattering lives.
 
Neither of those is creating jobs, increasing opportunities, empowering communities or easing the suffering of American citizens.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Franklin Gorge, WV

Climbing friends:

I know that many of you have enjoyed climbing at Franklin Gorge in Franklin, WV. Sunny climbs, plentiful jugs, and a cool location have made this a climbing destination for decades.

But were you aware that you were climbing on private property, or that the Access Fund has made no attempt to actually establish an agreement with the owners to ensure continued climbing there? 

Despite the appearance of new "No Trespassing" signs, the Regional Access Coordinator and the Mid Atlantic Climbing Coalition still do not discourage climbers from going to Franklin; MACC does state that "access is sensitive"; since when has a "No Trespassing" sign been anything except a landowner's posted wish for the public to stay off their land?

Ignoring these signs increases traffic on a worn-out road and continues the problem of congested parking, leading the property owners and West Virginia Department of Highways to discuss ideas about gating off River Road just beyond Kemper's Store.

That's right, the road could be gated off a mile or so from the crags, where there is far less parking, potentially leading to more problems with other landowners on whose land climbers will be parking, which could lead the landowners finally just banning us from the crags.

Luckily, local climbers and route developers familiar with the situation (and the Access Fund's interesting choice of priorities) have sent out a heads-up. 

Access is in jeopardy, and while there is a ton of good rock in nearby Smoke Hole, it would be a shame to lose the good will of local landowners and further sully the reputation of climbing while watching this crag slip through our fingers because of advocate apathy, as was the case at Champe and Nelson Rocks.

The Access Fund needs to be inundated with local area members asking why MACC and the Regional Coordinator have left this on the back burner for almost eight years. 
 

There hasn't been a trail work event since July of 2009; that event was organized by local climbers (namely: me), not the Access Fund, even though many, many of their members visit this crag. In  fact, the AF hasn't sponsored or organized a trail event in this region, outside Seneca Rocks, where volunteers have to maintain the trails used by the Regional Coordinator and his guides. 

The Fund should be asked to respectfully and responsibly contact the owners to open up dialogue, with a goal of ensuring access, establishing standards they will expect their members to hold up to while on this private land, and arrange for regular trail work events.

So, long story condensed: please, contact the access fund (https://www.accessfund.org/take-action/report-an-access-issue, https://www.accessfund.org/contact-us).
On a similar note, I know some of you have been using and enjoying the rakkup guides we put out for crags in Smoke Hole. 

Wouldn't it be great to have one for Franklin? 

The Falcon guide is out of date and some information is wrong, it's now impossible to find one of the original Climbers' Guides to Smoke Hole, and mountain project is really just a plagiarized illegal supplement. 

The good folks at rakkup.com and your humble author could produce a digital guide for the 100+ routes at Franklin in fairly short order, but we cannot in all good conscience do so before access is secured and the property owners are on board with the plan.

Towards that end, I pledge to donate half of my profits from any rakkup guide for Franklin Gorge to supporting trail work, bolt and anchor replacement and future access efforts.

The ball is in your court, climbers: protect access and call on your advocates to back up their mission statement with action, so that we can all continue to enjoy the great climbs of Franklin for generations to come.

Climb on!

Michael Gray

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Tribal Law

I like and respect Jeff Achey as a person and as a climber.



But his recent Access Fund Blog Post "Expanding the Tribe" is just wrong.




https://www.accessfund.org/open-gate-blog/expanding-the-tribe




Let's look at a few of Jeff's contentions;



"Access to many older areas has become easier and more secure."
 

Jeff has apparently never been to Franklin, WV, a sport crag developed on private land by some of the biggest names of the early New River Gorge era, a popular crag where hundreds of AF members climbed for a decade without giving a thought to securing access or organizing an Adopt-A-Crag.
 
Despite having a Regional Access Cordinator just over the hill in Seneca Rocks, Franklin climbers still have no resolution on access and the ownership question is murkier than ever. Same goes for Nelson Rocks, an iconic crag of hard climbs now owned by a church group, and Champe Rocks, off limits to climbers for over two decades, a situation that is unlikely to change when  it is the local Fund members and employees of the Regional AF Coordinator who routinely "sneak" onto private land to access this crag.


Business isn't booming around here, either, no matter what is happening around New River. There are fewer stores or shops in any of the towns around Seneca Rocks, which has been a climbing destination since the 80s; Franklin, Petersburg, Upper Tract and Cabins all have more "For Sale" signs than ever, despite being deluged with climbers and other outdoorsmen every year.


Climbers are cheapskates, Jeff, period. That's why everything that isn't online is going out of business, and people who earn 100k/yr wait for year end sales to buy a $50 helmet. Kemper's Store sits directly on the road that leads to the crag, and went out of business because people who gfly to Thailand and Mexico said it looked "too sketchy". I was in Slade, KY and spent plenty of time in Fayetteville, WV back in the day, and Kemper's never looked any shadier than the businesses I saw there, thronging with climbers.



As for the contention that we didn't have dogs because they were a sign of conformity: bollocks. We didn't have dogs at the crag because they tend to relieve themselves without much concern for human proximity or trail etiquette, they dig holes in belay areas, chase wildlife and invade packs not their own, and they bark, making communication difficult in a sport where communication is literally life-or-death.






The Dawn Wall was a non-issue for me because it was so hugely popular, like Duck Dynasty and American Idol, and about as devoid of content.



My problem with this non-event was that, in the midst of the Dawn Wall media frenzy, the issue of the amazing climbing destinations of Queen Creek, Apache Leap and Oak Flat Campground being given to a foreign mining company was completely lost.




This was what we call a precedent; the single biggest loss of Public Lands in U.S. history, and no one was talking about it, including advocates who should have been screaming to the high heavens, all because two professional athletes were tweeting from a big wall in Yosemite.




The Dawn Wall wasn't going anywhere; Apache Leap and Queen Creek stand a good chance of disappearing as climbing destinations in the next administration, now that precedent has been set without meaningful contest.



Opinions vary, but I was not the only one who felt this issue had been punted around for most of a decade, left on the back burner by the advocates who were courting major corporate dollars.



So, to recap; the President whom Jeff rationalizes stroking for his favor was sitting back after having given away 2400 acres of Public Lands, land considered sacred to the Apache, on which the largest outdoor bouldering contest in the world had been held for two decades, an area specifically protected from mining and development, set aside by Presidential order 50 years before Obama saw the White House.



Incidentally, there is 9 BILLION dollars worth of copper ore and countless other mineral resources buried thousands of feet under that land, but the United States will not see a penny of that money.
 
The economic health of the country directly affects climbing, Jeff... wouldn't that money be better in American pockets?




Getting those riches out will devastate the environment of the entire region; drawing down all the water in a riparian habitat and burying a beautiful view shed in millions of tons of overburden.




The company benefitting from this giveaway specializes in automation of mining techniques, so any jobs promised will likely evaporate long before the project begins, and those that remain will likely be taken by out-of-state workers, brought in by the mines.



Knowing the entire story, potential impacts and history of the land, this President signed the land swap into effect anyway, four years to the day after issuing an apology to Native Americans for the theft of their sacred lands by the United States Government..



That's the President we were stroking, instead of launching another lawsuit against his administration and/or protesting into a showdown.



Remember that the Access Fund, for whom Jeff is writing, was a key player in the compromise that let this generations-old heritage slip through our fingers.



It is also an interesting study in conflict of interest that Jeff is part-owner of a company that wells bolting gear, specifically rap bolting gear, much of it to a new generation of climbers with little or no respect or use for the founders in whose footsteps they refuse to admit following, making this blog post a sort of sales pitch, in point of fact.




Self-serving, much?



Climbing will change, that is true.



Blindly accepting and condoning all aspects of that change for profit is a spreading disease among advocates and climbers seeking to make a living from the sport.



Tribes exist out of a mutual consent of the members to observe certain constraints on their freedom, when with the tribe.



Our continued access to public lands with the freedom to roam and develop crags depends on the individual members of the climbing tribe giving up a bit of their individuality, conforming to a certain standard, respecting certain precedents, and adhering to established principles even when NOT with the rest of the tribe.



Members should always remember that the sum is greater than the parts.




You are not climbing, I am not climbing, neither is Jeff, or any one person.



Don't make yourself bigger than something centuries old with an almost limitless future.



You get back the respect you give to the sport, and the crags.


The concept that you can just talk to people and positively change or affect their behavior is a theory unfortunately ground to dust under the heels of decades of experience trying to do just that; a fellow climber approaching a group of newcomers and offering to share knowledge regarding the crag sounds like a great idea that should work almost effortlessly among rational people.


Unfortunately, we’re primates, which means that nine times out of ten, when we are in a pack or a pair and are approached by another primate we perceive to be threatening our territory (saying/doing anything to indicate that our actions are not correct), we generally scream and throw fecal matter rather than settling into reasonable discourse.


I’ve tried humor, diplomacy, humble apologies for disturbing someone’s day, and friendly banter, and the results are almost always the same; unless you are taking time out from cruising a 5.12+ or V15 to explain the situation, to the person or the group that you are attempting to educate, you are just another nobody authoritarian asshole trying to ruin their day.


And I do believe that this reaction, in part, also goes back to a gym culture in which boundaries and rules are clearly defined and simplified to the greatest extent possible for mass consumption. You don’t have to be a steward of the gym; there’s no need to be aware of private property or sensitive species or work on the trails there, and if you can master pulling on plastic on a plywood wall, following taped tick marks, you are a god, no matter what your behavior in the outside world.


Extremely good gym climbers come to the outside world with a sense of entitlement and an almost universal ignorance of crag ethics and environmental impact. There is intellectual knowledge, oh yes indeed, but having a bumper sticker or memorizing the tenets of LNT does not, in most cases, translate into actions mirroring the ethics of the organizations whose T-shirts and bumper stickers climbers so proudly display.


Small wonder, when in most cases those organizational ethics are little more than fundraiser talking points to coax donations and membership fees out of climbers while the advocates and activist organizations partner with corporations whose interests diverge sharply with those of the climbing community when one reaches the bottom line.


Thus you wind up with a culture of climbers who see no contradiction between corporate and environmental interests, who take for granted the convenience of climbing within walking distance of cafes and bistros and bathrooms, who have little or no experience with the natural crags beyond a few Spring Break top ropes, and whose heroes have no connection to the outside world (sorry, but while there are thousands of photos of famous climbers doing a number of amazing things, building trail isn’t one of them).


To put three decades of experience in a nutshell; many of even the best gym climbers come out and have no idea how or where to shit in the woods. With, in some cases, years of climbing experience behind them, they are rarely amenable to advice from strangers who interrupt them in the midst of hanging hammocks in the middle of the trail and are crass enough to point out that their dog is digging a hole in the belay area; even if they passed you working on the trails and cleaning up trash, offered advice is usually ignored or received with sarcastic gratitude and promptly forgotten.


Along with a handful of experienced outdoor adventures scattered across the bureaucracy, these are the people upon whom we are depending for intelligent policy decisions?


I don’t know if you’ve paid much attention to the nominations since the elections and this blog post, but given the way things seem to be going with the new administration, most of the EPA and DEP employees who are truly care about the planet are currently looking for new jobs, and filling large prescriptions for Prozac and medical cannabis.


If you think anyone from the Tribe is going to have any effect on the juggernaut egos at the top of this administration, you obviously filled your scrips earlier in the week.


And I'm as much a part of the problem as the solution; I've published a guide and increased traffic tenfold, trying to raise funds and awareness to support trail work, replace aging hardware, increase interaction between climbers and local businesses, and in any other way I can think of, to counter the region's slide into obscurity.


I've seen red-tagged projects stolen from the people who put weeks and months of time into them, along with hundreds of dollars of hardware, seen trails decimated by uncaring Spring Break groups just looking for the next place to trash and post on FB, and watched as the beta I put together is copied, stolen, and given away by people who do nothing to support the efforts of local NFS stewards.


Don't tell me I have to accept that these people are the new face of The Tribe. I've spent most of my life so far cleaning up after the waves which would each be 'the future of climbing'; trying to reach out and change their perspectives, and then just trying to limit the amount of fallout from their indifference.


My advice would be that these new folk had better start showing some respect for and paying attention to the old school, those of us who inherited responsibility for these lands directly from the founders of that tribe. We are still very much a part of the climbing world, and there is a great big boot attached to our regard, one that can swing with no respect for persons, if that is what it takes to get the newcomers' attention and correct their misapprehension of their own importance.



Just one old man's opinion, after four decades putting up new lines and building trail, putting far more money and effort into climbing than I have gotten back in bankable dollars, because that was never my reason for being here in the first place.



Climb on.


MG



Friday, October 14, 2016

Election 2016, or, Alien vs Predator- No Matter Who Wins, We Lose

Last word on this-

If you vote in this election, you lose.

If you do not vote in this election, you lose.

If you vote for Hillary, you are saying you support lobbyists and Wall Street owning our government, that you support lifetime bureaucratic-political careers and the sale of America's resources and political future to China and other peace-loving pro-democracy nations. 

You're saying that you shouldn't divorce your cheating husband if it advances your political career, and should in fact join him in selling out our country, while defending rapists and dehumanizing their victims.

You are admitting that you are gullible enough to think that anyone who is giving inspirational presentations to Wall Street and big corporations for millions of dollars a pop has any concept of how you live or the struggles you go through to pay your bills and feed yourself, never mind those you love.

You're telling our soldiers that it is okay for their leaders to be clueless and apathetic while our overseas personnel die at the hands of terrorists, when they could be saved by a single phone call, and that it is okay to have trained and supplied those terrorists for decades.

You're saying pantsuits are actually fashion.

If, on the other hand, you vote for Donald Trump, you're saying it is acceptable to be profane, vulgar, disrespectful and downright aggressive to women, which is funny, when you think of just how many of Trump's supporters were all about the transgender bathroom law.

Now you have a man who has assaulted women sexually (as in: against their wishes and/or without their consent), and you want to put him in the White House? 

(By the way, if you have never been in a locker room, that is not 'locker room talk'. That was nasty, degrading ignorance put into words. Talking like that in most locker rooms will earn you a punch in the mouth.)

You're telling the world that you are fine with a man who is a fan of the dictator who rules Russia with a bloody iron fist, a man that, like Putin, is prepared to commit war crimes or order our military to do so.

(At which point Don will retire to a comfy room in Gitmo, or his supporters will learn a bitter lesson about the true depths of our military's honor and commitment to preserving the Constitution.)

What would make America great again is a man who would hand out nukes like Christmas candy to some of the most unstable governments in the world, ideologically? 

A man who would suspend our right to free speech if it is aimed at him? 

A man who said that he has nothing to confess to God, and that sleeping around in the 70s was the equivalent of serving in Viet Nam? 

How could you scream about Obama's disrespect of veterans for eight years and swallow that bile with a grin? 

How do you expect fiscal responsibility and progress from a man who cannot keep casinos solvent (casinos; you know, where the house always wins?), even with a strip bar inside?

(A strip bar, also known as a place where men actually pay more not to sleep with women and where money pours like rain from heaven.)

You're also saying that combovers and spray-on tans are cool.

(Yes I did say more about him- he offends me much more deeply, since I am a man and he is a simian approximation.)

I've been to Colorado and seen what it is like there, and this is nothing like that, so I have to ask-

What are you people smoking?

Can you really believe that Susan B. Anthony, Jesus, The Founding Fathers, Lincoln, or anyone with a working set of frontal lobes would want either of these complete failures as humans anywhere near the White House?

Even if you choose to vote for a independent candidate like Gary Johnson, you are voting for someone who will not be allowed to win. The two major parties have already shown themselves capable of as many dirty tricks as could be imagined to battle each other- combined, their attacks would be insurmountable. 

And, of course, if you wisely choose not to vote, your choices will be made by the incredibly divided and partisan masses, swirling around the gene pool on their little rubber horses, just waiting for November and a chance to 'Put A Woman Where She Really Belongs' or 'Make America Great Again', neither of which is going to happen.

As I have said- no winning. 

Not even for me. 

After all, it's not much fun saying "I told you so" from inside the blast radius.

Election 2016: We're screwed.